Tying the Knot, Ugandan Style

July 19th 2015

Yesterday Shelby, Jeremy and I had the good fortune of going to a traditional Ugandan wedding. Or actually a kwanjula as it’s called, which means introduction. We went with our bosses, and on the drive out to the bride’s village they explained how Ugandan weddings are long, drawn-out affairs. The kwanjula is one of the last steps in the process, and it’s when the groom is introduced to the bride’s family. Later, after several weeks or months have passed, the couple will have another ceremony in a church. Our bosses explained that both ceremonies are legally binding, however the former constitutes a polygamous marriage, while the latter makes it monogamous. Many Ugandans – especially those who live in rural areas – will only have the first ceremony, since the practice of taking many wives is very common here. For this couple however the church ceremony is planned for next weekend, which will bind them exclusively to each other.

The man getting married works at another NGO, so we’d met him on several occasions at workshops and conferences. However, we really don’t know him too well, but because we’d never been to a kwanjula he graciously allowed us to take three of the coveted seats. Just another example of Ugandan generosity. Needless to say we were extremely grateful, since it turned out to be a pretty wild experience.

From the beginning we instinctively compared the kwanjula to the weddings we are used to. But the similarities ran out very quickly as we were thrown into a world of colourful dresses, foreign tongues, and chickens. So instead of trying to find similarities, here are some of the key differences between a traditional Ugandan wedding and a typical North American one (from my limited experience):

1. It’s not really about the bride and groom. In North America, the wedding is all about the two people being joined in marriage. This is true to some extent here, but it seems to be just as much about the families. In Uganda the wedding symbolizes two families coming together as one. Yesterday this was reflected in the fact that the groom was given almost no preferential treatment, and instead sat at the back on the gathering. In fact, the bride didn’t even appear until halfway through the ceremony! And even when the bride and groom were finally introduced, the host listed each of their lineages in great detail.

The purpose of sharing the lineages was to emphasize the importance of family, as well as showing that the bride and groom come from completely separate clans. As I mentioned in my last post, it’s taboo to marry within your clan or your mother’s clan. Luckily, in this case the bride and groom even came not only from different clans, but from completely different kingdoms. The groom was from Acholi, while the bride was from the neighboring kingdom of Busoga. This meant that the wedding took place in two different languages, with a mixture of different customs. But more on that later.

2. Ugandan weddings have much more dancing. True, at receptions for North American weddings people bust out their most embarrassing moves. But that all happens after the official wedding has taken place. In Uganda however most of the kwanjula involves music, dancing and clapping. In fact we were even criticized when we weren’t clapping enough! A DJ played throughout the ceremony, and there was even a bubble machine. The masters of ceremony also spent most of the time making jokes, even during the more official parts of the proceedings. All in all it was a much livelier affair than our typical serious North American ceremonies.

3. Ugandan weddings aren’t very private affairs. North Americans generally have relatively small families, so weddings can be pretty intimate. Here however that’s out of the question, since people usually have upwards of five or six siblings, meaning that they have even more aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. This means that even a wedding with just family would probably have double or even triple the amount of people a North American wedding would have. Moreover, by the end of this wedding the whole village had gathered around to watch. Hundreds of children and teenagers formed a circle around the perimeter of the tents, wanting to witness the exciting event taking place in their village.

4. PDA is a no no.
Even though it’s their big day, the bride and groom never kiss in a Ugandan wedding. I’ve noticed that here in Uganda women and men rarely exclusively show attention to each other – it is rare to see a couple holding hands for instance. However, this doesn’t mean that affection is frowned upon. On the contrary, Ugandan’s are all about physical contact – it’s normal to hug someone you are meeting for the first time, and handshakes often last whole conversations. Moreover, men holding hands is a regular sight here (somehow it isn’t associated with being gay, which is interesting given Uganda’s strict anti-homosexuality laws). But when it comes to weddings, the bride and groom can only hug each other. Anything more intimate is not fit for public.

5. There are way more chickens. More on that later.

Finally, unlike short and sweet Canadian ceremonies, traditional Ugandan weddings last for upwards of seven hours (or at least this one did). Add on the eight hours we spent in the car driving to the bride’s village, and you’ve got a pretty full day! I’ll give you a summarized account of the events, just in case anyone plans on doing their own wedding Ugandan-style:

Before the wedding started the groom’s side convened at the headquarters of his NGO to get dressed. A few weeks beforehand Shelby and I had gotten traditional dresses made for the occasion (called gomesi), while Jeremy had purchased the customary long dress worn by men on formal occasions. A the NGO the women lined up to get help with their dresses, since the pleats and sashes made it a two person job. They accented their outfits with expensive looking earrings, necklaces, and towering heels.

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Once everyone was clothed, one man introduced himself as a teacher from the region. He explained that he spoke the local language and knew the customs, and therefore he would be leading us all through the ceremony. The bride’s side had a man playing a similar role, so they did most of the talking during the wedding.

After getting our directions we drove to the bride’s family home. Here weddings start with the groom’s side – us included – lining up outside where the introduction will take place and asking to be let in. At this point women dressed as nurses came up to us and pinned little bows to our clothing, while a woman dressed as a doctor pretended to take our pulse. Since none of this happened in English, it was only later that we found out they had been ‘checking’ us all for diseases before we could come in, since we were infected with the disease of love. Ugandan humor I guess.

After we were seated and declared disease-free, everyone stood to sing the Ugandan national anthem, and the anthem from the bride’s kingdom. A prayer was said, and then the bride’s family members were introduced. This process took about two hours: between commentary from the ambassadors, lines of women in matching dresses would dance in, kneel and introduce themselves, and then be given ‘appreciations’ from the groom’s side (i.e. envelopes with money). At one point Jeremy was even picked to help distribute these.

After the introductions, the bride herself finally appeared. After dancing in in an elaborated sequined traditional dress, she was seated on a small platform in the middle of the three large tents. The bride’s paternal aunt then danced her way in and started searching for the groom. After finding him seated at the back of our tent, she pulled him out and brought him to his bride. At this point there was a lot of commentary in Luganda, pictures were taken, and a basket of fruit and flowers was presented to the couple. The groom’s sister’s also knelt before the bride and welcomed her into their family, telling her how much their brother loved her and how excited they were to have her as a sister.

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Once the sisters were done the bride danced out, and it was time for the groom’s side to pay the bride price. Ugandan society is very patriarchal, and as such there is a practice of the groom paying the bride’s family in gifts (like a reverse dowry). Apparently it varies from kingdom to kingdom, but it’s acceptable to give anything from Bibles to cows. In this case the groom’s family had brought a truck load of bags and baskets filled with various types of food and drink. There was also a cow, a goat, an armchair for the bride’s father, several live chickens, and a suitcase the groom had packed specially for his bride, filled with keepsakes from his childhood.

The gifts are traditionally presented by the women from the groom’s side, who carry the baskets in of their heads. This was something Shelby and I had been dreading, since we’d never carried anything on our heads in our lives. Luckily, the women made sure we were given light baskets, and we made it through without dropping anything. It’ll still be a while before I can carry a basket on my head without holding on, and while wearing four inch heels like the other women were, but I think I did well for my first try.

Once the gifts were presented, the bride’s father sat in his new chair and blessed the couple. At this point Shelby’s boss leaned over to me and whispered how she despises this patriarchal custom. She explained that since men often have many wives and even more children, it is the mothers who raise the kids. As such, she said it should be the mothers who bless the marriage, not the often absent fathers. But instead, the bride’s mother spent the whole ceremony in the kitchen preparing dinner. Hmmm.

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Shelby’s boss also frowned on what followed: the groom gave one of the bride’s brothers a chicken. She explained that the chicken was in exchange for the bride – not a very fair trade if you ask me. But as unfair as it is, this is apparently one of the most important parts of the marriage. She explained that in the church ceremony – when the brother gives the bride away – the priest will ask whether the exchanging of the chicken took place. If not, the marriage is not legitimate. No chicken, no wife. At this point I felt like someone should have been whispering into a walkie talkie: “The chicken is secure. Repeat, the chicken is secure”.

After the chicken successfully changed hands it was time for food. Traditionally the groom eats in private with a few members of his party. As the token foreigners, Shelby, Jeremy and I were ushered into a dark room with mats on the ground to join the groom’s private dinner (more undeserved special treatment). There the bride’s aunts served everyone heaping plates of matooke, rice, potatoes, cabbage and beef. The groom was presented with a full chicken – see, told you there were lots of chickens! – and told to eat it all. He laughed and did his best, but the chicken was soon passed around the room.

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After eating, everyone went back to their seats to witness the couple’s official engagement. Since this couple is having a church wedding as well, the engagement was a promise that that would come (like a proposal in North America). The groom gave the bride a ring, and a priest made a speech about living life in the image of Jesus Christ (I zoned out a bit for that part). Then the cake was cut, confetti popped, and music began to play.

At this point it was close to 7pm, so we were glad to discover that all that was left was to greet the newlyweds. A congo line formed under the stars as the guests danced their way to the bride and groom. In typical welcoming Ugandan fashion, when we reached the couple they gave us huge hugs and thanked us for coming. Even though I’d never met the bride before that moment, she beamed at me and pressed a favor into my hand (it was a box containing an apple, a keychain and a candy). I smiled back, awed by her hospitality on her big day.

Finally we stumbled past the tents, quickly changed out of our sweaty dresses in the middle of the parking area – no shame – and were bundled into the car in no time. Four hours and one very close bet later we were back in Kampala, the excitement of the day having drained us of all our energy. Needless to say it was definitely an experience I’ll never forget.

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Elitism and the Expat Life

July 8th 2015

Being abroad can be hard. Navigating a different culture can make you feel confused, lonely, scared and at times make you homesick for things you never thought you’d miss (like proper garbage bags to keep out fruit flies for example).

Here in Uganda I’ve luckily had minimal bouts of homesickness, but this isn’t the first time I’ve dealt with the roller-coaster of emotions that come with being an expat. When I was nine years old I made the bold decision to move to China with my dad – and for weeks I cried every night because I missed my mom. Years later, at age 15, I chose to leave my friends and high school in Canada and transfer to an international school in Singapore. For months I would message my friends regularly to tell them how much I missed them. In both cases I took a leap of faith, and it paid off a hundred fold. I learned that the pros of living abroad far outweighed the cons.

Still though, there were times that I wanted nothing more than to be home. When you go abroad you are thrown into a new reality. In this reality very little is recognizable – the people look different, the landscape is different, the food, clothes, and the way people interact are all different. The simplest tasks become difficult. For example, going to the grocery store is a multiple step process: first you have to figure out how to get there, then decipher what foods they offer and convert the currency to dollars in your head, then navigate the checkout, sometimes in a foreign language, and finally find your way home. In Beijing going out to eat meant learning how to pronounce what was on the menu, ordering it without confusing the waitress, and then learning how to eat with chopsticks. Essentially, when you’re abroad so much energy is expended on basic upkeep that you fall into bed exhausted well before your usual bedtime. Foreign places are draining.

Not to mention that you are the target of stares and comments every time you step outside your house. Because you are equally as foreign to the place as it is to you, you attract a lot of attention. In Beijing my sister, our quasi step brother and I would constantly be approached for our picture. People would touch seven- year-old Lucy’s red hair in awe as she stood stock still, waiting for it to be over. Similarly, here people yell “mzungu!” when we pass, and in Peru they call foreigners “gringos”. Sometimes you just want nothing more than to blend into the crowd.

Surrounded by all this foreignness it is logical to look for something familiar. A person who speaks fluent English for example, or a pirated DVD of a Hollywood movie, or even a block of cheddar cheese in the supermarket. Any small thing to anchor you to the reality you’re used to. This is why I make it a habit of travelling with some small comforts from home: a bag of David’s Tea, my favorite ginger candies, and letters written by my friends and my mom. These objects become lifelines, allowing me to explore and enjoy the unfamiliar while still retaining some measure of comfort.

In this context, it’s no surprise that expats often seek out Westernized hang out spots. In Beijing for example we had a tradition of going to our favorite neighbourhood French restaurant once a week to get steak or creamy carbonara. Once in a while we’d also treat ourselves to a slice of decadent peanut butter pie at the American –run Grandma’s Kitchen. In Singapore, my friends and I would drink beer at the foreigner-dominated Holland Village on Friday evenings, and play pool on the weekends at a Westernized mall. These expat havens complimented trips to the Chinese opera, meals at hawker centers, and rickshaw rides.

Here in Kampala Shelby, Jeremy and I have found our own expat getaways. For example, once in a while we’ll go out for pizza at a nearby hostel or buy ice cream cones after work like we would do in summer in Canada. Moreover, Shelby and I regularly attend a spinning class at a nice gym, and on Saturday the two of us treated ourselves to a day by the pool at an upscale country club.

But at what point does this search for comfort take away from the experience? And is there a point where it becomes unethical?

I’d be lying if I answered no to these questions. I always feel guilty when I ask the boda guy to take me to one of the upscale malls, or a movie theatre. The fact is, even though these places can provide comfort, they can also feel like too much of an escape. It seems to counteract the point of traveling if you spend your time away seeking out the comforts of home. Why not just save yourself time and money stay in your hometown? One of the reasons for traveling is to be exposed to new places and experiences – something that eating burgers every night and living in an air conditioned mall will not accomplish.

A second reason to avoid binging on Westernized locales is that they often seem inauthentic. They’ve usually been built for foreigners, not for locals. Let me give you an example:

When we first arrived our friend/tour guide took us around to spots he thought we’d be interested in. Of these spots, one was the Commonwealth Resort: a luxurious hotel/country club on the shores of Lake Victoria, frequented by diplomats and heads of state. We were wowed by the extravagance of the facilities, but it also felt a bit hollow. It was all too well maintained, posing a sharp contrast to the chaotic streets outside.

In contrast, after the Commonwealth Resort our guide took us to Gaba Beach – a local market and port for fishermen and small passenger boats. Here there was life and noise and haphazard stalls everywhere. People were practically on top of each other as they squeezed their way down the crowded dirt path. Although far less serene than the resort we’d just come from, Gaba Beach felt authentic. We finally felt like we were in Uganda.

But I wonder if we’re also kidding ourselves to seek out an ‘authentic’ experience. Isn’t it a bit of a condescending farce? When we went rafting on the Nile one of the girls from Operation Groundswell said something I’ll never forget: she said that she’d seen “the real Africa” because they visited a slum. That phrase made me cringe because 1) she assumed the slum represented the whole of Africa, and 2) she was commodifying the ‘authentic’ experience. It is now becoming increasingly popular to see the real Global South by volunteering in remote villages and living without running water or electricity. Afterwards people go back to their home countries and smugly talk about the hardships they endured as part of their ‘authentic’ trip. So even if you avoid the expat hubs, will you ever truly get the authentic experience of living in said country? And is it just some new brand of consumerism to seek this out at the expense of local communities?

But that’s a topic for another time. Let me move on.

A final danger/unethical factor of overfrequenting Westernized locales is that it stinks of elitism. Only foreigners and rich Ugandans can afford gelato at Acacia Mall or can regularly attend a spinning class. Shelby and I felt a pang of guilt as we splashed in the pristine blue pool at the country club on Saturday, because we knew that only a small fraction of the Ugandan population could afford to be there. Even if it’s not our intention, by going to Westernized places we automatically surround ourselves with the rich. And that’s an icky feeling (not that there’s anything wrong with rich people, but I’d like to operate in a more varied social milieu. Especially as a very non-rich, Mr. Noodle-eating, recent university graduate).

I keep asking myself: is it fair for us to go to all these upscale places while Ugandan children are selling bananas and corn in the street outside, struggling to survive? Are are we supporting class divisions by frequenting places that are relatively expensive? (Although still far cheaper than in Canada) It’s obvious when you’re entering a foreigners hub because the percentages of Caucasian faces in the crowd shoots way up. It’s like there’s a semi-permeable membrane at the doors to Acacia Mall that lets in everyone who grew up using dollars, but only some who grew up with shillings. This division based on income and country of origin (to some extent) makes these places slightly uncomfortable for all sorts of reasons.

But then I wonder; if accessibility is the root of it than where do you draw the line? Even in Canada there are many people who can’t afford to go to the hot yoga classes I go to, or the coffee shops I frequent. So should I stop going there? Probably not. And to use an even more extreme example, many Ugandans can barely afford to feed themselves, but that doesn’t mean the three of us will stop eating to make it fair. So where’s the line?

I think ultimately it comes down to a matter of degree. Sometimes we treat ourselves to little tastes of home because we need a break from the exhaustion of navigating a foreign place. There are things like spinning classes that may cost a bit more, but that we know are good for both our physical and mental health. And our weekly trips to get steak and carbonara in Beijing didn’t take away from the view of the Great Wall from my window, or my weekly Mandarin classes. But does that mean we should spend our Saturdays here in Uganda lying by the pool at the country club rather than exploring the city? Obviously not. Or at least the time we spend exploring should far out-way those token poolside afternoons. Not only to avoid the threat of elitism, but also to enrich our own experience here.

Before going to the pool on Saturday we went to the big, very well-stocked grocery store in Acacia Mall. There we saw a young blond women picking out peanut butter and red wine. Later we spotted that same woman at the country club eating lunch. My first reaction was to judge her for spending her Saturday in a Westernized bubble. But then I realized that Shelby and I had been to all the same places that day. The realization made me feel uncomfortable.

So maybe it’s time to tone it down a bit. I won’t deny myself the occasional trip to the movie theatre, but I’ll try to keep that and other homey indulgences to a minimum.

Along those lines, if you need me I’ll be drinking Nile Special or haggling over the price of matooke.

So…What’s the Plan?

June 30th 2015

Four years ago I made a plan. It’s a simple plan really, spanning approximately eight years. It goes like this:

Step 1. Get a B.A. in a subject (or subjects) that I am interested in. Make sure it is broad enough to accumulate general knowledge about the world and give me a sense of what options are out there.

Step 2. Take one or two years off after my degree. Spend those years traveling and being outdoors, while still making enough money to support myself. Don’t worry about pursuing a career, just do things that I won’t be able to do later in life (i.e. becoming a diving instructor or backpacking around South America). Also in this time figure out what I want to do with my life.

Step 3. With my new found wisdom and life experience decide on a subject that I want to pursue my Masters in. Have gotten good enough grades in my undergrad to get into a good school (hopefully somewhere abroad).

Step 4. Work on my next plan based on how this one turns out.

Pretty simple right? As someone who tends to live spontaneously this is as close to a finite plan as I could get while still keeping my options open. It provides comfort, but also flexibility. And as of right now – four years in – I’m right on track. I’ve successfully completed step one: I have a combined honours degree in Political Science and International Development Studies with a 3.6 GPA (not great, but not horrible).

I’ve now moved on to step 2: discovering life outside of school. In my two years off I always imagined myself climbing mountains or bumming around Europe. Never did I imagine having a job in my field, of all places. But as it turns out, the four years I just spent slaving away in the Killam Library have actually qualified me for something (go figure!). This internship presented itself before I’d even finished my exams, and my hunt for fall jobs has already come up with a plethora of options (although applying for them is another matter). I guess as a bright eyed and bushy tailed recent graduate I am a desirable candidate for NGO and non-profit work.

Of course I should be thrilled. Isn’t this what everyone wants, to get a job in the area they studied? Even if it’s only for the summer. But counter intuitively, in my plan the express purpose of my next two years is to NOT work in my field. I want to  try all sorts of things before I have to settle into a ‘career’ or a ‘profession’ (what do those words even mean?). I’ve focused so intensively on political science and international development studies for the last four years that now I want something different. I want to get a certificate in photography, or be trained in Wilderness First Aid. I’m worried that it would be too easy to stick to what I’m qualified for and never get to try anything else.

It would be a different story if I felt that I’d found my calling – if I knew that the NGO world is for me and I never want to work in any other sector. But that’s not the case. True to form, as soon as my options start to narrow I freak out and open them up again. I’m much better at knowing what I don’t want to do than what I do. And the seven weeks I’ve spent working for Food Rights Alliance have been eye-opening to say the least.

Being here I’m getting firsthand experience in the NGO world. Every week our boss sends Jeremy and I to numerous meetings put on by various civil society organizations. There we listen to presentations and frantically take notes on taxation in the budget, seed policy, GMOs, land tenure rights, bilateral trade agreements, foreign direct investment, etc. Seven weeks in it now feels normal to put on nice clothes every day and carry my heavy briefcase to the office where I spend eight hours researching and writing, researching and writing. I’ve learned more about agriculture and food security being here than I knew in my whole life. On top of that, my co-workers are all young and smart and some of the hardest workers I’ve ever met. And my boss is an impressive woman who acts as much like our mother as she does our supervisor (last week on the way to a meeting she found out I’m vegetarian and gave me a lecture on getting enough iron). Basically, I scored.

But being here I’m also beginning to understand the reality of working for a non-profit. People don’t march into work every day holding banners and burning with a desire to change the world (don’t worry, I knew that before I came here). Instead it’s a lot of report writing and fundraising. Buzzwords like ‘capacity building’ and ‘behavioral change’ are applied to every situation. Every day is an uphill battle and at the end of it no one knows if progress has been made. And what is meant to be an hour long meeting can stretch out over two days (that might just be a Ugandan thing though. God I hope it’s just a Ugandan thing). I know that the NGO world isn’t perfect, but it’s disheartening to see how bogged down in rhetoric and procedures everyone is.

In contrast, I’m used to taking an experiential learning approach. I was raised by a facilitator who confidently marches into meetings carrying a briefcase full of balloons and gets all the men and women in suits laughing and participating. Most of my job experience is working with kids with chronic illnesses or from disadvantaged backgrounds – preparing programs and games to help them develop self-confidence and leadership skills. I know working for an NGO isn’t the same as working for a camp, but the principle of engaging people is the same, and that’s something I’m good at. I know how to get a group of people working towards a common goal, and I can do it without using projectors and spreadsheets. I guess it just took coming to Kampala to realize the value of skills I already have.

So is working for an NGO everything I dreamed of and more? Yes and no. I like the people, I’m interested in the issues, and it keeps me questioning what’s right and wrong and what I believe. But there is too much rhetoric and not enough of an experiential approach, both within the organization and in the work being done. Often meetings will end and there will be no clear tangible outcomes. You have to wade through the politics to get to the heart of the matter, and even then it isn’t clear what to do. The work being done here is very valuable and definitely has its place, but I’m just trying to figure out where I fit in it, if anywhere.

I’m not trying to say that I have all the answers – most likely I don’t have any of them. I’m just learning, and I only have seven weeks of experience under my belt. Furthermore, I know that not every NGO is the same, so I shouldn’t use this one example to characterize them all. But I am realizing where my strengths lie, and how they can fill the gaps in this type of work. I still have no idea whether the NGO world is where I’ll end up, but if it is at least I now know a bit more about what I’d be getting myself into.

For now, I’m just sticking with my plan and seeing where it takes me.